Corrections or additions?
This article by LucyAnn Dunlap was prepared for the March 8, 2006
issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Bringing the Playwright on Stage
Celebrating its 20th year, Passage Theater in Trenton is playing its
part in the revitalization of the city, as well as providing a theater
home to a number of playwrights who want to see their brand new plays
professionally produced in a space away from the scrutiny of the New
York press. The bonus for Passage audiences is the opportunity to be
the first to see exciting work by some of the best emerging and
established writers. The theater is also noted for its visionary work
with young people of the community. Artistic director June Ballinger
pioneered the State Street Project for Passage, built on the model of
a similar project she had developed in New York City. "Performing arts
can give young people an arena to find a feeling of success that,
whether they continue as performers or writers or not, can translate
into feeling good about themselves in life."
Passage Theater lives and performs in the historic Mill Street
Playhouse. Their anniversary season continues with a production of
"Love To All, Lorraine," a one-woman play inspired by the life of
playwright Lorraine Hansberry, written and performed by Elizabeth Van
Dyke. In performance Tuesday, March 9, through Sunday, March 26, it is
presented in association with the National Black Touring Circuit
founded by Woodie King Jr. as part of the nationally-known New Federal
Ballinger promises that Van Dyke transforms herself on stage to give
the audience a portrait of the artist who, with "Raisin in the Sun" in
1959, became the youngest playwright and the first African American to
have a play produced on Broadway.
Capping the season will be a new play by Trenton native William
Mastrosimone, "A Stone Carver," May 4 through 28. Both plays mark
returns to Passage Theater. Van Dyke performed here in a production
during the 2000 season, portraying another important African American
writer, Zora Neale Hurston, in a work by Laurence Holder. Mastrosimone
has premiered a number of his plays at Passage, most recently "The
Afghan Women" during the 2003 season.
Once a busy actress working on Broadway, Off Broadway, in regional
theatres, and on television, Ballinger married and moved to Princeton
and admits that she slept in Princeton but spent every day in New
York. Little by little, this began to change. Part of the change was
precipitated by the birth of her son; she didn’t want to be away from
him for extended periods. One day, a friend was performing at Passage
Theater, and she made her first trip to Trenton to see the play and
was amazed by her discovery: "It’s a city. And so close."
Beginning with the youth project, she became more and more involved
with Passage, eventually accepting the job of artistic director.
Working with her board of directors, she has built a financially
viable arts organization that has gone from a $135,000 budget to a
$500,000 operating budget with no deficits hanging over them. It
doesn’t hurt that Ballinger’s husband is a former member of the
McKinsey Management Consulting Firm and has lent a bit of his
Always wanting to present new plays that celebrate the resilience of
the human spirit, Ballinger has recently started looking in unusual
places for new writers and has found a number of poets whom she has
lured into writing for the theater. And she reconnected with avant
garde theater artist Ann Bogart, who was a college chum, to talk about
"ways to expand the horizons of her theater audience and build a
creative community enriched by new and varied theatrical fare while
celebrating experiences we all have in common that transcend culture
Van Dyke, who spoke to me from Lowell, Massachusetts, where she was
appearing in a production of "Intimate Apparel," says she is delighted
to return to Passage Theater, as she considers it one of her "artistic
homes." She has only praise for Ballinger, whom she describes as "a
wonderful human being who has a passion for the community, for the
arts, and for diversity."
As a young woman bound for college, Van Dyke traveled east from Los
Angeles, where she had lived with her mother, to New York University
to begin her theater studies. Since then she has made New York City
her home base. After earning an MFA, she has continued to study with
different teachers and still has sessions with noted drama coach Alice
Ballinger describes Van Dyke’s performances as mystical in that she
seems to be totally transformed into the character she is portraying,
whether it is Zora Neale Hurston or Lorraine Hansberry. "I’m an only
child," says Van Dyke. Though Hansberry was not an only child, "the
aloneness in the solitude of her writing, I found fascinating. And
she’s so smart – not that I’m nearly that brilliant – but as an
actress, I was often in my head."
She credits acting teacher Sanford Meisner for setting her free. "All
acting methods are the same, just articulated in different ways, but
Meisner had a different approach." She says he got her "totally out of
my head. He helped me to realize that there is no right or wrong way
in acting, only more effective and less effective. Human behavior will
do any and everything." She describes her current technique as
"totally organic." Her intense commitment to a spiritual life that
prompts her to annual trips to India also plays a part in her "method"
Van Dyke is a very private person. She will not tell me anything about
her husband, only that she has one, nor the date she graduated from
college. Instead she asks me when I decided it was OK to tell my age.
She is also very protective of her subject matter. When she was
writing "Love To All, Lorraine," she had the unique opportunity to
read Hansberry’s diaries. But when I ask her for any piece of
information gleaned from them, she says, "I don’t know that I should
say." And wouldn’t. However, she does admit that the surprising
information in the diaries did help her to see Hansberry as a real
person, not as her earlier romanticized vision.
Van Dyke has worked consistently as an actress, always remaining
steadfast in her devotion to the theater with forays on
east-coast-based television, like the New York actor’s mainstay, the
Law and Order empire, and for a time playing a recurring role on the
"All My Children." "I never did the LA thing," she says.
As a way to create an acting job for herself, she began writing "Love
To All, Lorraine" 15 years ago, and has been re-working and re-writing
over the years. It was seen for the first time at the New Federal
Theater, then later at the American Place Theater, both in New York
City. She has toured her one-woman play to theaters and campuses
across the country.
She has found performing as Hansberry actually easier for her because
"she’s a human being who’s lived, rather than a character invented by
a playwright. The answers to an actor’s questions are right here – on
the record." No searching the script for clues about the character as
one would in portraying a part in a Shakespeare, Chekhov, or Mamet
play. "Biographical information exists. Sociological information
exists." And, after all, she did write the script herself.
Van Dyke says: "This is not a period piece; it always has resonance."
She feels that the political unrest of today makes the life of
Hansberry even more relevant. She was living at a time when all around
her activists were fighting for civil rights." Van Dyke says that
Hansberry was actually very upset, feeling that her life of social
events, television interviews, and association with the "smart set" of
the New York intelligentsia, and then her declining health, kept her
from being as active in the civil rights movement as she would have
liked to have been. In "Love to All, Lorraine," Van Dyke has Hansberry
leaving a civil rights meeting upset with herself because her
"articulation has been lessened by the pain killers" that she has
taken to help her through her cancer symptoms. Yet with her one major
successful play, "A Raisin in the Sun," exemplifying the universal
theme of search for freedom and a better life, she certainly made an
impressive gift not only to the American theater, but also to the
African American experience in this country. But she didn’t live to
really see that. Hansberry died in 1965 at the too-early age of 35.
Van Dyke hopes that audiences will be inspired by the life of Lorraine
Hansberry as she has been. "I pray that the experience in the theater
will be transcendent, special for each person, that you will discover
a person who you like, who opens your heart. Especially in this day
and age of divisiveness, we need inspiration. There are so many ills
in our society."
Love to All, Lorraine, Thursday, March 9 to Sunday, March 26, Passage
Theater, Mill Hill Playhouse, Front and Montgomery streets, Trenton.
New play written by and featuring Elizabeth Van Dyke based on the life
of playwright, Lorraine Hansberry. Hansberry. $25. 609-392-0766.
Corrections or additions?
This page is published by PrincetonInfo.com
— the web site for U.S. 1 Newspaper in Princeton, New Jersey.